A Look Into Michael Gove’s Rather Controversial Bookcase

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Senior politician comes under intense scrutiny after being found to own a book written by a Holocaust denier.

The recent photo making its rounds on Twitter of Michael Gove’s bookcase has sparked widespread anger surrounding its contents, and questions have arisen as to whether senior politicians should own certain books. It has also re-opened a debate that has been largely left dormant for some time now, between freedom of expression and protection from discrimination.

The photo was originally posted by Gove’s wife, Sarah Vine, showing one of their bookcases which contained the names of many authors. However, the author and book that has stood out most notoriously and caused such uproar amongst the Twitter public has been David Irving’s book ‘The War Path: Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939’. David Irving, an English author, has written extensively on both the military and political history of the Second World War and focused most on Nazi Germany in his works. However, Irving is also one of the most notorious Holocaust deniers alive today.

Denial of the Holocaust is not outlawed in the UK but is in many European countries such as Germany and Poland (where the majority of the crimes of the Holocaust were physically committed).

To own a book by Irving strongly suggests that Michael Gove and Sarah Vine have at least a peripheral interest in Irving and his works. This by no means suggests that Gove and Vine are themselves Holocaust deniers but, by owning a book that is written by one, they have not perhaps been placed in the most favourable light. There are many other authors that have extensively covered Nazi Germany, such as William L. Shirer and Richard J. Evans. Therefore, to own a book by Irving suggests that one does not want to learn just about Nazi Germany and Hitler’s Third Reich. Irving’s book is explicitly attached to his beliefs about (or, rather, disbelief in) the Holocaust, so to purchase and read his book is to subconsciously acknowledge his beliefs at the very least.

Gove has been a high-status politician for a decade now, first coming to prominence in 2010 when he served as Education Secretary under David Cameron’s coalition. His history of connections with the Jewish people span his parliamentary career and in a 2011 interview with the Jewish Chronicle, he made clear that “I was born, will live and die proud to be a Zionist”. He is strong advocate for the Jewish people and Israel, which he recognises as being “the best [memorial] we can give for the Holocaust”. To be such a strong supporter of the Jewish people and yet own a book written by a renowned Holocaust denier, delivers an uneasy message to the Jewish community which he claims to support so fervently. Moreover, to be such a known public figure and senior politician; yet possess a book of such controversy, certainly raises questions regarding the values of himself and others at the pinnacle of government.

Placing Gove’s past to aside, the firestorm that has erupted on Twitter comes down to this issue. In order to read and understand a book, one must acknowledge the author’s beliefs. But the issue goes deeper still. The crux of the issue boils down to a feud between two human rights: Freedom of expression and Protection from discrimination. Both are upheld by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and are widely considered fundamentally essential to the existence of the individual.

Freedom of expression, under Article 10 of the ECHR, “protects your right to hold your own opinions and to express them freely without government interference”. It also “protects your freedom to receive information by other people”

However, Article 14 – governing the protection from discrimination – states that it is: “[I]llegal to discriminate on a wide range of grounds including ‘sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status’” and, “To rely on this right, you must show that discrimination has affected your enjoyment of one or more of the other rights in the Act. However, you do not need to prove that this other human right has actually been breached.”

Under Article 10, Irving is fully entitled to hold his own opinions concerning the Holocaust and to express them. Likewise, Gove is equally free to receive these opinions by Irving in the form of a book. However, Article 14 makes it clear (if it wasn’t already) that the Holocaust was an act of brutal, physical discrimination against the Jewish race and religion. Therefore, to deny that this ever took place excuses the initial discrimination, therefore making it discrimination itself. Holocaust denial also affects other human rights, and therefore can be deemed a form of discrimination and on that acts against the freedoms of the individual, especially if that individual is Jewish.  

This is why the issue surrounding Holocaust denial is not universally outlawed. It violates Article 14 but lies within Article 10. But regardless of this paradoxical issue, it is arguably not suitable for a senior politician to own a book that would create such controversy.

There were other books on Gove’s bookcase that were also questioned. The image also contains ‘The Bell Curve’ by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, a controversial book due to the authors’ implications surrounding racial differences in intelligence. Moreover, books written by Tony Blair and George W. Bush, who were the instigators and leaders of the disastrous Iraq War, can be identified.

It is difficult to decide where to stand on the issue of possessing a book owned by a Holocaust denier. On the one hand, Michael Gove is exercising his Freedom of expression by possessing the book. But on the other, by purchasing the book, he is financially supporting someone who violates others’ human rights. Moreover, by posting the photo on Twitter, Sarah Vine has arguably advertised the book and the author (and so the author’s beliefs) in a way that David Irving could have only dreamed of doing himself.

The fundamental conclusion is this. Whether Michael Gove and Sarah Vine want to own a book written by a man who refuses that the worst atrocity committed in modern history ever happened, that is ultimately their decision. It is their lives and their bookcase, and what they choose to put on it is their decision. What happens now is up to the individual. One can either use their freedom of expression to go one way or the other. To either sympathise with Gove, or to criticise him.

Holocaust denial is clearly a disgusting a deeply offensive belief to hold, and anyone who openly admits to carrying that belief should be heavily criticised for that opinion. Gove will need to answer for why he owns that particular book (amongst others) and what his beliefs are after reading it. But more importantly, we need to make sure that the actual issue, Holocaust denial, and the rights surrounding espousing such a deeply vile belief, are debated, and decided upon for good.

A belief as toxic and horrific as that should be handled with the utmost ruthlessness and authority. It should have been done so long ago.

Words by William Cooper.

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